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In the Fifties, stylish Harlem women, excluded by the white rag trade, designed and modelled their own clothes - and helped launch a distinguished photographic career.
The first black model to make it on to the cover of Vogue was Detroit-born Donyale Luna, photographed by David Bailey. That was 30 years ago, and the fashion trade's long resistance to black models has been forgotten. But Eve Arnold documented how the women of Harlem took fashion into their own hands in the Fifties in some of her earliest photographs, which can soon be seen in London.

Like so many others, she was introduced to photography by chance: "A beau gave me my first camera and taught me to use it - a $40 Rolleicord." The only class she ever took was a six-week course in New York in 1950, with Alexey Brodovitch, mentor of Richard Avedon and many others. In his "Design Laboratory", 60 ambitious photo-wannabes jostled and savagely criticised one another's work, making no exception for Eve's first amateur efforts: "It was infuriating and chilling, but sadly accurate." The saturnine Brodovitch needled: "Surprise me!"

Eve was stung into trying harder, even though her first class assignment was to photograph fashion - a subject in which she had no interest. Appalled at the prospect of the usual stilted studio shots, she sought an alternative approach to the project. Dora, her son's nursemaid, told Eve about the regular fashion shows that were happening in Harlem. The civil rights movement had not yet gathered full momentum, but in 1950 the black community was growing impatient with the slow progress towards integration. In Harlem, style-conscious black women who felt that the white rag trade did not cater for them had begun to design and make their own clothes. Shows were held almost daily, in bars, theatres, nightclubs and church halls. Eve telephoned Edward Brandford, who ran two black model agencies, the Sepia and the Black & Tan, and he invited her to visit a deconsecrated Abyssinian church to see his star performer, Charlotte Stribling, aka "Fabulous", stride the catwalk.

Eve moved backstage, where she hoped the models would be less aware of her camera. Again, the quality of the resulting photographs partly depended on an accident - her flash-gun failed to fire and she was forced to open up the lens and work with the available light. (This minimum obtrusion technique, using a hand-held camera, would become one of her hallmarks.) Brodovitch said they showed a fresh and original approach, and told Eve to forget classes: "Go back to Harlem and do a comprehensive study." For more than a year she spent most weekends in Harlem photographing models and dressmakers, both in their homes and backstage. Once the story was completed, however, she discovered that no American magazine would publish the pictures. Her husband, who had lived in Britain, sent them to Picture Post, which ran eight pages plus the cover.

With just the one story to show, Eve made the rounds of the New York magazines, to little effect. Eventually she persuaded the publicist at the Metropolitan Opera to let her photograph an opening night. Armed with two stories, she showed her work to Maria Eisner, who ran the newly opened New York office of the photographers' co-operative Magnum. Largely on the strength of her Harlem photographs, she was invited to become a stringer: she and Inge Morath were Magnum's first women members. Her career as a photo-journalist took off and she chronicled almost every aspect of Fifties America, from unsavoury politicians (Rockwell, McCarthy) to film-stars (Monroe, Dietrich). Since settling in London in 1962 she has continued to photograph on assignment throughout the world.

To tie in with her Barbican Art Gallery retrospective a BBC TV crew recently filmed Eve Arnold in Harlem, site of the photographs that launched her career. Sadly, Charlotte Stribling could not be found. But the Abyssinian church still stood on 155th Street, and there Iman Bowie discussed the problems of being a black model.

Back in 1950, black women were still straightening their hair or wearing wigs, and fortunes were made out of selling skin-lightening cosmetics. But the women of Harlem were starting to react against Seventh Avenue "prettiness" and establish their own styles. An episode largely absent from fashion and social history is movingly documented in Eve Arnold's photographs, here and overleaf.

An exhibition of Arnold's work will run at London's Barbican, 9 May to 14 August. Her new book, `'Eve Arnold: In Retrospect", is published on 6 May (Sinclair-Stevenson, pounds 30)